It is most timely that Newman's Anglican Difficulties has just been reissued, and it is a welcome bonus that it comes with notes and a new introduction by the distinguished philosopher of science Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. The Church of England (C. of E.), which was so formidable when yoked with a Britain that ruled the waves and upon whose Empire the sun never set, is now going through another of its death rattles, so perceptively predicted by Newman in 1850, when this book was originally published.
Death rattle? Why, today the C. of E., the Established Church, has only two or three percent of the English population in its churches on Sundays, and there are now more Roman Catholics in church on Sundays in England than Anglicans.
"Time and again, at crucial junctures," notes Jaki, the C. of E. "acted in a decisively Protestant way." Anglican Difficulties is Newman's response to one of those actions -- viz., when the Queen's Privy Council declared that the (Catholic) doctrine that baptism imparts spiritual regeneration, or sanctifying grace, is not necessary to Anglicanism and need not be adhered to by Anglicans. A group of prominent Anglo-Catholics protested the decision, saying that because of it the C. of E. would become "formally separated from the Catholic body [i.e., the invisible Catholic church] and can no more assure to its members the grace of the Sacraments and the Remission of Sins." As Jaki asks, "What could be more fatal for a Church allegedly Catholic?" While protesters Henry Manning and Robert Wilberforce would go over to Rome, other protesters, such as John Keble and Edward Pusey, would -- strangely -- find a way to buckle under to the decision.
Anglican Difficulties is addressed specifically to Anglo-Catholics to show them that if they would remain true to their principles -- specifically, those of the Oxford Movement, born in 1833 -- they would have to go over to Rome.
Newman knew all the Anglo-Catholic arguments for not going to Rome, and he knocked them over one by one. What is truly prophetic about this book, though, is that Newman, understanding the debilitating weakness of the Anglo-Catholic position, foresaw how the position of Anglo-Catholics in the C. of E. could only get more and more precarious -- and preposterous -- over time.
Of course, because of the C. of E.'s patently anti-apostolic and anti-Catholic decision, in November 1992, to ordain women, many Anglo-Catholics have now become [Catholic]
. . . And yet, all the rationalizations offered by Anglo-Catholics in Newman's day for sticking with Anglicanism can still be heard in England today by many other Anglo-Catholics. Which is why stranded and still bewildered Anglo-Catholics in England -- not to mention elsewhere -- should get this book, gird up their loins, and read it (again, if necessary).
Newman contended that the C. of E. had no real identity and no future. It was not beholden to Christ or Catholic doctrine or the universal Church (either the actual one centered in Rome or the one imagined by Anglo-Catholics), but to the nation, public opinion, and the Spirit of the Age. It could only move further and further away from its "mimic Catholicism." For Anglo-Catholics to remain in the C. of E. could not alter this destiny, only slow it down for a time. Regarding the Spirit of the Age, and with reference to the Privy Council decision, Newman exclaimed eloquently: "The giant ocean has suddenly swelled and heaved, and majestically yet masterfully snaps the cables of smaller craft...and strands them upon the beach.... One vessel alone can ride those waves; it is the boat of Peter, the ark of God."
Newman saw that if the doctrine of baptismal regeneration could be reduced to a mere matter of opinion, then any doctrine could be so reduced. Today the apostolic priesthood has been so reduced, and Anglican bishops who deny the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the Second Coming, Hell, and other doctrines go undisciplined. Indeed, the C. of E. seems unable to insist on any point of doctrine.
Newman noted in 1850 that the Catholic principles of the Oxford Movement had been repudiated (though tolerated, after a fashion) by the Anglican bishops, and he understood that those principles were "foreign" to, and could not be grafted onto, the C. of E. Newman implored: "If your Church rejects your principles, it rejects you.... [Your Church] is what it is, and you have no means of [changing] it.... Oh, my brethren! Life is short, waste it not in vanities...."
One vanity of the Anglo-Catholics derived from the undeniable fact -- affirmed by Newman himself -- that they had experienced God's grace as Anglicans. But as an argument for staying in the C. of E., this proved too much.
. . . But while grace can be found among pagans, that does not prove the truth of paganism, and the question before Newman and the Anglo-Catholics was whether the C. of E. was (or was a part of) the true Church of Christ.
Newman knew that any argument for the truth of Anglo-Catholicism based on subjective religious experience would fail, for, he noted, the Methodists, for example, could point to more dramatic religious experiences than could the Anglo-Catholics. Ironically, the Anglo-Catholic appeal to religious experience could validate the apostolic authority of Methodism, which Anglo-Catholics are bound to deny.
Anglo-Catholics also contended that Anglo-Catholicism could hang on as a "part" in the C. of E. Newman objected that the Oxford Movement intended to Catholicize the whole C. of E., not just part of it. Since that goal proved impossible, Anglo-Catholics could not remain in the C. of E. Said Newman: "A movement is a thing that moves; you cannot be true to it and remain still." Since the Oxford Movement could no longer move forward, Anglo-Catholics must exit.
Furthermore, said Newman, the Oxford Movement was founded on opposition to the Protestant principle of private judgment. To settle for being a mere "party" in a smorgasbord church would be to make peace with the principle of private judgment -- which would be logically self-defeating.
For Anglo-Catholics to remain isolated in the C. of E. -- isolated from the Catholic Church -- would, for Newman, be an "intolerable paradox." It necessarily involved the devising of an "eclectic" religion of one's own -- itself a speculative act of private judgment. Anglo-Catholics would be coming forth with a "new edition of the Catholic faith, different from that held in any existing body of Christians anywhere." This was an impossible arrogance to Newman -- and implausible on the face of it, for Anglo-Catholics constituted only "a drop in the ocean of professing Christians."
Newman, going up against the "branch" theory of Catholicism, warned Anglo-Catholics not to go from one "branch" to another; "after all, a branch is a branch, and no branch is a tree."
A "branch" church is, said Newman, virtually synonymous with a national church. A branch church "tends to nationality as its perfect idea; till it is national it is defective, and when it is national it is all it can be...." A national church "ever will be and must be" Erastian -- i.e., acutely vulnerable, as history has shown, to its national government and to public opinion. A national church is "strictly part of the Nation...and therefore as the Nation changes, so will the National Church change." Because the Catholic Church is universal in reach and jurisdiction, only she is independent enough to transcend such pressures.
Finally, should the Anglo-Catholics (like the Non-jurors) leave the C. of E. to form an Anglo-Catholic "sect"? For Newman, this would be worse than being a member of an Erastian church, for "setting up for one's self" would be to make oneself one's own pope. Such a venture could not endure, predicted Newman. Moreover, new sects would break off from the original sect. Such a course, said Newman, "excites no respect, it creates no confidence, it inspires no hope."
Newman's logic is peerless -- and it has worn very well. Still, the reader may wish to add to all this the caution that Christian fidelity involves more than getting an "A" in Ecclesiology 101. There have been and are many Anglo-Catholics -- not to mention members of other "branch" churches, and various "sectarians" -- whose holiness and charity and love of the Lord put many a Roman Catholic to shame. Yes, we must keep ever fixed before our hearts and minds that Christ founded one Church, has only one Bride, and wills that all people who claim His name submit to her. But, as Newman well knew, God's grace is abundant in this world. Grace received ex opere operantis, even if not sacramental, is truly grace. That's but one reason why grace is so amazing.